Caution will alienate the suburbs, too

The novelty of Labour losing an election has provoked an inevitable but hysterical debate. Inevitable because there have been plenty of silent dissenters waiting for their moment to strike. Hysterical because the solutions advanced by Labour's internal critics make no sense.

Trade union leaders and others seem to be arguing that the government should pay less attention to the middle-class section of the new Labour coalition and much more to its core traditional voters. Such an analysis assumes that it is impossible to address the two groups simultaneously. For sure, there are enormous gulfs between the pro-European wing of new Labour and the Eurosceptic cheerleaders, such as the Sun. Liberal Democrat sympathisers such as Paddy Ashdown and Lord Jenkins will also turn hostile if Tony Blair decides, as he seems increasingly inclined to do, to drop his project of closer co-operation between the two parties. But that is not what the new wave of dissenters is complaining about. It is calling for greater emphasis on the government's reforms such as the introduction of the minimum wage and some of Gordon Brown's redistributive measures, as if this would rouse the core vote while alienating Middle England.

That analysis underestimates the appeal of the government's social reforms. So wide is the appeal of the minimum wage, for example, that the Conservatives will not dare enter the next election pledged to scrap it. In any case it is a myth that old Labour always tried to win elections by appealing solely to traditional supporters. When Harold Wilson pledged to settle the miners' strike in the February 1974 election, he knew the middle classes wanted a quick solution as well.

Instead of asking whether policies should be aimed at the core vote, the government should pose a different question: has its awe of Middle England led to a caution that ultimately alienates the very voters it is intent on keeping? I have three examples in mind.

The first concerns transport, a subject I have frequently banged on about in this column. Now Middle England's own newspapers are raging too. The London Evening Standard, with a high readership among Tube users and commuters, has for months been running an admirable campaign highlighting the decrepit state of the London Underground. Recently a Times editorial criticised the government's transport policies with a vehemence exceeded only by the Observer the weekend before. On that subject, the media is reflecting and influencing the voters' views. Yet the gridlock in Whitehall over transport policy is partly due to Downing Street's wish not to alienate Middle England car-lovers or to spend taxpayers' money.

The consequence was an over-hyped transport white paper published a year ago, which offered little more than vague measures to curb the number of "school runs". Any measure that would make a Middle England car-lover pay a little more, thereby creating funds to improve public transport, was cast into outer darkness. Caution a year ago has produced a very big political problem now. Middle England (and certainly suburban London, where Labour did so well at the last election) wants decent Tube and rail services and to spend less time in traffic jams. What is more, the core vote would concur. This may involve taking decisions that give the government some short-term flak, but the long-term political benefits would be huge. Too often this mighty government with a huge majority goes out of its way to avoid short-term grief in a way that the Thatcher governments of the 1980s never did.

My second example is the Freedom of Information Bill. Blair and Jack Straw have a very similar approach to constitutional reform. Both agree that it should be managed in such a way as to create minimum difficulty for central government. In some ways this is admirable, because these political managers have delivered reform where past crusaders have failed. But sometimes their managerial instincts overwhelm them. While Middle England no doubt admires "strong government", it dislikes ministers who become arrogant with power. And a bill that devotes so much space to the areas where freedom will be curtailed creates exactly that impression.

Some of the journalistic outrage is over the top. Newspapers would cause havoc if they could get hold of private political advice given to ministers. Nor should we have romantic notions about the openness of the US system. But in his managerial zeal Straw has made it too easy for police, local authorities and other bodies to block information. Middle England voters may not be bothered by the details, but it is the wider impression that is damaging.

My final example concerns the Labour Party itself. When the National Executive Committee was reformed, the emphasis lay on loyalty to the government. Voters do not like divided parties, it was thought; therefore, the NEC's role should be explicitly "supportive" at all times. But there are occasions when governments need candid friends.

A leading Blairite, by no means a disloyal figure, told me that if the NEC had been doing its job properly it would have warned passionately against the closed-list voting system for the European elections, pointing out that local parties would be alienated. If they had done so, the leadership might have been forced to think again to its own longer-term advantage.

In his reaction to the European election result, Blair has been right to avoid any suggestion that his programme is aimed at one section of the country and not another. But he could be bolder in ensuring that the programme on which he was elected is implemented fully. It is not just the core vote which needs reassuring.

This article first appeared in the 28 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Buy your home and kill a job